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The Legacy Myth of College Admission

By: Fei Guo ’21

BIPP Survey Research Laboratory Intern

The legacy and racial bias of American college admission is always a hot topic. Last year, a nationwide cheating scandal, known as the Operation Varsity Blues, revealed dozens of elite parents bribing test preparation organizations and athlete coaches to bolster their children’s chance of getting into top universities. Earlier In 2018, New York Times also found that Harvard’s admission officers had maintained a “Z-list” of students, who had merely borderline academics but legacy connections or minority advantages, for guaranteed admission. 

According to a nationally representative survey conducted by YouGov, Bucknell Institute for Public Policy Survey Research Lab analyzed respondents’ attitudes toward the controversial evaluation criteria.

The result showed a clear disparity between what people thought should matter the most and what people thought actually mattered in the admission. Respondents were asked to rate seven selected factors regarding their importance in the admission process. The factors were the following:

  1. Has taken a challenging high school course load
  2. Has gotten strong high school grades
  3. Has strong standardized test scores
  4. Has parents or grandparents that graduated from the school
  5. Is a member of a racial or ethnic minority group
  6. Has a family member that donates to the school
  7. Would be a student-athlete

Among these factors, a similar percentage of respondents rated “has taken a challenging high school course load” “has gotten strong high school grades” and “has strong standardized test scores” as important factors in college admission. On the other hand, a significantly less percentage of respondents felt “has parents or grandparents that graduated from the school” “is a member of a racial or ethnic minority” “has a family member that donates to the school” and “would be a student-athlete” should be important. In the most extreme scenario, only 19.5% of respondents thought that family donation should be important, while 74.7% thought that it was actually important to admission officers.

There is dissatisfaction toward the current weighting scale of legacy and other non-academic factors in the admission process. The data are in accordance with recent scandals and controversies. The Institute will keep monitoring the change of people’s attitudes in the following survey researches and look forward to more holistic evaluation and admission methods for candidates. 

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